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How to abbreviate language names

How to abbreviate language names: ISO 639-1 two-letter codes

You have probably seen two-letter language codes referring to various languages, e.g. FR, EN, DE for French, English and German respectively. These codes are used for bibliographic purposes, and in computing and online environments; such as the URLs of localised (translated) websites.

Such codes used to be rather arbitrary (GE or DE or German? DU or NL for Dutch? Is PO Polish or Portuguese, etc.) But more and more companies are now using standardised codes, in accordance with ISO 639.

What is ISO?

ISO 639 is a multi-part standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) concerned with representation of names for languages and language groups. 

Each language is assigned a two-letter (639-1) and three-letter (639-2 and 639-3) lowercase abbreviation. Two-letter codes are designated by ISO 639-1, and are mostly based on the language name in the local language (so it’s DE for Deutsch, NL for Nederlands, etc.). The standard also serves to resolve ambiguities like PO (Polish = PL, Portuguese = PT and PO is not used).

Wikipedia: International Organization for Standardization

Here are the codes for some major languages

(Actually the ones we see the biggest translation demand for):

CodeLanguageComments (some diacritics may be missing)
BGBulgarianBlgarski ezik (Cyrillic script български език)
CSCzechThe digraph cz- is English is odd. It is used in no other word and does not appear in Czech.
DADanishNot to be confused with the DK used on car number plates
ELGreekEllinika in Greek – Ελληνικά
FIFinnishOdd, since in Finnish it’s suomen kieli
HUHungarianOdd, since it’s Magyar in Hungarian
IDIndonesianBahasa Indonesia
JAJapaneseAnother anomaly: Nippon go in Japanese 日本語
KOKoreanHan in Korean 한국어
NONorwegianNorsk, but the literary variety is called Norsk bokmal (NB)
RURussianRusskii yazik (русский язык – Cyrillic alphabet)
SVSwedishSvenska (Nb.: SW = Swahili)
ZHChinese中文 – Zhong wen, i.e. Mandarin Chinese. You sometimes see ZH-S and ZH-T for simplified and traditional forms respectively, though this is not part of the ISO standard.

For a complete list, see for example Wikipedia: List of ISO 639-1 codes

Regular clients will know that we use these codes in our files names, eg.: “MarketingBrochure.indd” will be returned to you, translated into Spanish, as “MarketingBrochure_ES.indd”.

Related topic: Which language variations should you translate into?

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